The Pillars Part 1: The Deadlift

The task is well defined—and competitively measured—lift more weight. Succeeding, however, is the complex part. And repeatedly doing so will require a great plan. I’d tell you what that plan is, but I don’t know what it is for you. Improving is a uniquely personal task. So what I am going to set out to do is offer you a way to lay the foundation for a plan to improve upon each lift.

To use an architectural analogy: you must build a stronger foundation if you wish to build a more impressive structure. And I’d contend that for each of the bench, deadlift and squat, there are a select few exercise variations that comprise the “pillars” that a more impressive main lift can be “constructed” on top of.  These are the variations that, when improved, lead to a direct and predictable improvement of the variation’s base lift. And to be thorough, we can examine each lift in its own article. For part 1 of 3, lets take a close look at the deadlift and which deadlift variations most effectively impact its improvement.

Sumo Block Pulls

The first exercise we will look at is the sumo deadlift with the weights elevated on 2” or 4” blocks. It’s so effective for the same reason that sumo deadlifts are used in the first place—they offer superior leverage! By elevating the weight on a block, we make it easier to start with the hips closer to the bar. It’s elevated and allows the lifter to start with the hips closer to the bar, the spine more upright and the legs in a slightly more extended position. All of these factor in to create one thing: leverage.

This is a lift that offers several training benefits: for a beginner, it allows the lifter to learn to pull from the sumo position with less of a flexibility requirement than pulling sumo directly from the floor. It benefits both the sumo and conventional lifter by allowing for maximal loading of the quads and upper spinal erectors in the back. Because it lets the lifter consistently pull supra-maximal weights—often for reps—the muscles of the torso and upper back really get overloaded. The tightness taught by the sumo block pulls makes the transition back to the pull from the floor a matter of how much leg drive the lifter can generate, because the upper body will have handled these supra-maximal weights. In fact, only one other exercise has had a bigger benefit on my conventional deadlift and this is a sumo deadlift!

Finally, and most important for the sumo puller, the block pull allows the lifter to repeatedly get heavy weights moving and keep them moving. This is of paramount importance because it allows the hips to be trained to drive the knees outward and remain close to the vertical plane of the bar for the duration of the lift. The biggest pitfall in most lifters’ sumo technique is at high intensities, the lifters are unable to keep the hips close—instead allowing them to push back and lose the leverage advantage gained by lifting with the sumo technique. Forcing the hips out takes tremendous strength under heavy loading and simply won’t just happen to be developed if you aren’t sumo pulling heavy.

Do pulls for 3-5 reps after pulling off the floor using the 4” setup or use the 2” blocks for 1-2 reps as a maximal lift for a workout.

Conventional Deficit Deadlift

If you have never pulled conventional while standing on a 3-4” box or 100 plate, stop wasting your time reading stuff on the internet and go do these. Execute each rep from a dead stop and with as much leg drive as possible. If you’ve done these then you know that the brutality of the added range the legs must drive through and the back must pull through, and given the slower overall speed—to me these are like cheating and are exactly what I mean when I say an exercise is a “pillar” to build on. If these go up in weight you can guarantee that your pull from the floor will as well. Granted the longer you do these and the better you get at them, the less the carryover from these to standard conventional deadlifts will be, but if that even slightly presents itself to you as a reason to consider not doing them then don’t. And stop reading and go away. Deadlifts are not for you.

These can be programmed in many ways. If you follow a conjugated routine then these can be done first as a max effort or heavy effort lift: 1-3RM sets. My preference is to use these as is done in the various versions of the Finnish deadlifting programs as an exercise to build both strength and volume with. They are done for several sets of 5 and as the first exercise in the workout. Lastly is my method, which I utilize because as a sumo puller if you don’t do some conventional work the hamstrings and lower spinal erectors can get a little deconditioned. This exercise works great for one set of max reps after all my sumo pulling is done and I typically perform 4-8 reps. One set for all you’re worth! This will add tons of mass to the back of your body and legs no matter which way you do them, just don’t do them vicariously through someone else.

Deadlift Rep Max

Deadlifting for reps is the obvious alternative to taking one rep maxes every week! This is for either conventional or sumo, and either way you are simply executing one of the best exercises for gaining tons of strength and size. My workouts tend to revolve around heavy pulls from the floor and 2-3 rep sets are great “pillars” to build your 1RM on. Higher reps (4-6) are also effective and can be used to build up volume quickly when you are preparing for a meet but are further away.

These are nothing more than the classic deadlift performed for reps, but to me the most beneficial tip is to execute every rep from a dead stop—no touch and go reps. You will build far more strength when the reps are performed like this.

Another benefit of the multi-rep sets is that it allows you to train with weights that challenge your technique but do not cause it to breakdown. Pulling maximally has a great effect on strength but carries with it a larger recovery cost and risk of injury—maxes should be used intelligently not all the time.

Deadlift vs Bands

Deadlifting against band resistance offers a few options: It can be used as a method of overloading the top to build your grip and lockout strength or it can be used in a high set, low rep setup to master the technique of transitioning from the first pull into the second. Finally, when performed for singles or doubles, it gives me a great indicator of progression—which is part of what defines it for me as a “pillar” to build a strong deadlift on.

Pulling maxes is fun and self-explanatory, but let me say a bit more about the high set, low rep method. Basically here you would pull 1-3 reps per set for 6-10 sets. What you’ll inevitably notice is that your body starts to anticipate the increase in tension as the bands kick in more and more. The body should naturally gravitate toward driving the hips in as soon as the bar is transitioning past the bottom of the knee caps in an effort to sustain leg drive through until the lockout instead of having the legs finish early and locking out primarily with back strength.

My set up is basically 2 sets of mini bands attached to tie downs 40” apart. With the bands quadrupled the lockout is 150-175 pounds of extra tension depending on your finish height.

Stiff Leg Deficit Deadlift (back rounded)

These are not a “pillar” per se, as these don’t directly increase the deadlift. However, these are great either for building up a base of work in preparation for a higher volume of deficit deads (as in the Finnish routines) where they can be done for as many as 10 reps per set, or they can be done as an “assistance exercise” after all other deadlifting. My preference is just to do a lot of these! I like to work them in the 5-8 rep range and often twice each week: at the end of deadlifting on Fridays and after squatting on Mondays. These are basically the poor man’s hyper, but in my opinion why do low back assistance work when you can just deadlift more? I like to perform 2-4 sets of these with each rep done from a complete stop. These build a tremendous amount of overall back strength and you will notice the work you put into these.

Stiff Leg Deadlift (back arched)

Now these are a personal pet exercise of mine! They are basically RDLs (Romanian deadlifts) but performed with a massive ROM. Stand on a tall box and either deadlift the weight up or take it off a rack in front of you so the set starts with you standing tall with the bar in a moderate stance. The objective is to push the hips back but keep the chest and chin out so the back remains arched. Legs are straight but not locked. This puts a tremendous load on the glutes and especially the hamstrings. When I began these 11 years ago I could only take 135-185 down midway on my shins while keeping the low back arched. My hamstrings were tight and not strong. Now I work all reps down to my shoe tops with my back arched. This basically isolates the hamstrings in heavily loaded hip flexion. Every time they extend the hips they have to first stretch to a great length. You are creating long, massive and bullet proof hamstrings by doing these. In a sense, they are more of a bodybuilding exercise, but to me turning your hamstrings into strong, durable workhorses will allow you to train your bigger deadlift motions much harder. My preference is to do these for sets of 5-6 following squats, but will occasionally do them to end a deadlift workout. They have a slightly better carryover to your sumo pull, but really they will serve as a great mass builder for the hamstrings and glutes as well as teaching the motor control to bend at the hips and not at the low back.

The flexibility will present a challenge in the beginning, but don’t go beyond the range that forces you to round your back as that will take away from the stress targeting the hamstrings. Because the technique takes time to learn these can be done at a higher rep range in the beginning for 3-4 sets of 8-12

Summary

So there are a bevy of great deadlifting choices to hammer away at. These work for me and most should work universally, but whichever you do make sure you are prioritizing sound technique and not just frequent max pulling! Earn that right by working your ass off on the harder variations. When you’ve built your stiff legs and you’ve built up the “pillars” a huge deadlift will then be yours for the taking.